For many years the BBC was my main source of political news coverage at election times. I expected professional and impartial coverage, and rarely did I ever question the BBC’s content or spin. However, in the last few years, and particularly since the European election campaign, my confidence in the BBC has been badly eroded.
It is the rise of UKIP, and the way BBC news has embraced them, that has led me to this viewpoint. Indeed, with Farage regularly on-hand to give a soundbite from the comfort of a convenient pub, good TV seems to have replaced good reporting. It’s a theme picked up by their flagship political show, Question Time. UKIP have had numerous appearances surely out of all proportion to their importance, largely I suspect, because of their viewing value. The result of course is that immigration and Europe is pushed to the forefront, allowing the UKIP agenda to gain further coverage and subsequent traction with voters.
Take last Tuesday night’s 6 o’clock news. In a story about the forthcoming Rochester and Strood by-election, the BBC reporter came straight out and told us that immigration and Europe were the key issues. We then heard from two workers saying that immigrants come to Britain and claim benefits, and that only UKIP, of all the parties, told the truth. At the end of the bulletin the BBC informed us that UKIP were well out in the lead. It was, to me, an appalling pro-UKIP news item.
In contrast, the Green Party has by and large been marginalised by the BBC, prompting social media campaigns and at least two online petitions. The most recent of these, calling for the Greens to be included in the party leaders’ debates before the general election, has attracted over a quarter of a million signatories.
So what of their political coverage for the next general election? The BBC is required under the terms of its Charter and Agreement of 2006 to ensure that political issues are covered with due accuracy and impartiality. More specifically, new draft BBC guidelines say that news coverage should ensure that at elections, due weight is given to hearing the views and examining and challenging the policies of all parties.
So what does this mean?
The draft guidelines say that to achieve impartiality, each news bulletin or programme must ensure for the election that political parties are covered proportionately over an appropriate period, normally a week. The actual proportion of coverage a party receives should take into account levels of past and current electoral support. Specifically, for 2015 the draft guidelines say that the following factors should be given due weight.
- performance at the 2010 general election in terms of representation and share of vote,
- performance in subsequent elections, where relevant,
- other relevant evidence of current electoral support,
- the number of candidates a party fields,
- any relevant political context such as electoral pacts, new parties, coalition agreements etc.
There is no set mathematical formula in the guidelines. Nor is there any indication of how these factors should be weighted, relative to each other.
My problem with all this is that the factors can be weighted to suit a particular viewpoint, and exclude a party such as the Greens. Yet a case can easily be made using these criteria to include the Green party in the leaders’ debates. Like UKIP, they achieved only a small share of the vote in 2010, but unlike UKIP, they secured representation at Westminster. In the European elections they beat the Liberal Democrats, and have subsequently polled at similar levels to the Lib Dems ever since. What’s more they will be fielding more candidates then ever before in 2015.
As for the political context, they have, unlike any of the established parties, seen a surge in membership; and most importantly, they provide an alternative viewpoint on the left of the political spectrum. That surely is crucial because without their inclusion, the debate will be between centre and right wing parties only. How can that be fair or democratic?
Sadly, I fear convenience, scheduling and viewing figures will trump democracy and fair play. Indeed, Farage is presumably seen as good entertainment, whereas the Greens I assume are not.
My hope is that a great many of us, in responding to the BBC Trust’s public consultation on the guidelines, will call for Natalie Bennett to have a seat at the debating table. That, together with the petition handed in yesterday, will I hope, lead to change; and maybe also restore some of my faith in the BBC.